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The Republicans' Faith-Based Free Agents

February 28, 2009

Over the last several months, new polling data has shed light on the intersection of religion and partisan politics in the United States. While a Gallup survey revealed the most and least religious states generally followed the 2008 electoral map, the Pew Research Center offered a detailed look at Obama and McCain voters by faith and frequency of church attendance.
Those results followed Pew's intriguing finding last year that faith in America may be a mile wide but an inch deep. That is, while 84% of adults in the United States claim a religious affiliation, fully 44% have left their childhood religions. And as it turns out, three leading Republicans in the news this week - Bobby Jindal, Sam Brownback and John McCain - are just some of America's faith-based free agents.
Before Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's political ambitions led to his disastrous prime-time response to President Obama's address to Congress, his own journey of spiritual discovery led him from his Hindu upbringing to Catholicism. As Time and TPM among others detailed last year, Jindal not only converted to the Catholic faith in high school, he participated in an exorcism during his days in university.
The Rhodes Scholar Jindal wrote of his experience in a 1994 New Oxford Review article titled, "Beating a Demon: Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare." (That piece was a look back at the exorcism of a fellow student and not a prediction of his treatment this week at the hands of the American media.)
As it turns out, Jindal's fellow nouveau Catholic Sam Brownback was also in the news this week. Senator Brownback (R-KS) had his named affixed to a fundraising letter from the conservative group, Catholic Advocate. That missive, which Brownback's office claims went out without his blessing, blasts President Obama as a "pro-abortion radical" and brands several of his Democratic colleagues false Catholics:

"Real Catholics need a new voice -- not the likes of Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi who have campaigned as Catholics while voting to undermine the values that we hold most dear," the letter reads. "The same can be said for the five 'Catholic' senators sponsoring the Freedom of Choice Act, namely: Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
"It is with Christian charity -- and in fraternal correction that we say to them: You can't be both Catholic and Pro-Abortion."

Sam Brownback's imbroglio is doubly-ironic. After all, the Kansas Senator's 1990's conversion from moderate evangelical and small government Gingrich acolyte to Catholic firebrand makes him a culture war newbie. And it was Brownback himself who got into faith-based fisticuffs with former Arkansas Governor and Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee during the Republican primaries. As Iowa Huckabee backer the Reverend Tim Rude put it (before later apologizing):

"I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002. Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor's. I don't if this fact is widely known among evangelicals who are supporting Brownback."

Then there's John McCain. After months of claiming Barack Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," the defeated Republican White House hopeful on Friday endorsed the President's plan to withdraw from Iraq.
On matters of religion, McCain, too has had a change of heart. Notoriously reticent to talk about his faith, McCain in 2007 acknowledged his leap from his Episcopalian past to a Baptist present.
During the presidential campaign, as I noted last year, McCain shifted positions when it came to what religion he now considers himself to be. In June 2007, McClatchy reported, "McCain still calls himself an Episcopalian." But as the 2008 South Carolina primary approached, McCain had a conveniently-timed change of heart as he appealed to the Palmetto's State's massive evangelical base. In August, as ABC reported, "McCain's campaign staff identified him as 'Episcopalian' in a questionnaire prepared for ABC News' August 5 debate." But by September 2007, McCain announced he had in fact switched teams:

"It plays a role in my life. By the way, I'm not Episcopalian. I'm Baptist."

Interestingly, as the Carpetbagger Report noted at the time, congressional directories "all identify McCain as an Episcopalian." And in a flattering Reuters profile last fall, Dan Yeary, McCain's pastor of 15 years at the 7,000 member North Phoenix Baptist Church, "declined to comment on McCain's reluctance to finally undergo a baptism ceremony, a key ritual of the faith." As Yeary put it, "John and I are having continual dialogue about his spiritual pursuits."
None of the above is meant in any way to question either the sincerity or the depth of the religious beliefs of John McCain, Sam Brownback, Bobby Jindal or millions of other Americans whose quest for spiritual fulfillment and meaning has led them to embrace a different faith. It is to suggest that they - and we - should be more tolerant and less dogmatic of other's transformations of faith.
After all, as Pew's research found, Americans aren't just faith-based free agents. Most in the U.S., including a majority of Christians, believe other faiths can also lead to salvation.

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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